Maine’s restaurants and bars have been shut down. So have schools and non-essential retail stores. Workers who can’t work from home are facing layoff or furlough.

To stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Mainers are changing their lives in ways that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago, and state and local governments have been making swift decisions to protect public health.

But not every decision has been a quick one. Men and women in prison remain sitting ducks for coronavirus infection in an environment in which social distancing is not an option. Public and private institutions are working to reduce density and prevent the spread of a potentially fatal virus. The state should not wait for an outbreak behind bars to take action.

The state constitution gives Gov. Mills broad latitude in this area, and she should use it. A good place to start would be commuting the sentences of every prisoner who is scheduled to be released in the next 12 months.

Other parts of the criminal justice system have responded to the COVID-19 crisis. Police are bringing fewer people to jail, relying more on summonses than arrests. Bail commissioners and jail administrators are finding ways to release pretrial detainees who in the past would not be able to make bail. But prisons, which are run by the state and house convicts serving sentences longer than one year, have been slower to respond.

In some ways, it’s understandable. One of the factors that judges use to set the length of sentence is meant to eliminate inequities in the system – making sure that similarly situated defendants receive similar sentences for the the same kinds of crimes. But no judge could have anticipated the circumstances that are now facing incarcerated people in the state. Exposure to the novel coronavirus was not part of the calculus that determined the sentences of any prisoner in Maine.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has written a letter to Mills and other decision makers, encouraging the governor to use her emergency power to take a series of steps throughout the criminal justice system that would lower the level of incarceration. In addition to commutations and changes in the way bail is calculated, the group also recommends releasing inmates who are being held on technical violations, where they are not charged with a crime.

Some of those steps are already being taken by various police, prosecutors and sheriffs, but a clear, statewide policy would make sure that the changes will be made before there is an outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak should expand our notion of public safety. Inmates who are supposed to be returned to the community in six or 10 months will not pose more risk if they are released now than if they completed their sentence. But crowded jails and prisons pose an immediate threat to the safety of inmates and corrections workers.

Every aspect of society is adjusting to slow the spread of this virus. Corrections facilities should be no exception.

 


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